Identity of Holbein Miniature Under Contention
Updated: Jan 20
Recently, an art historian has challenged the identity of a miniature by Hans Holbein. Does it represent the comely Katherine Howard or the supposedly unattractive Anne of Cleves?
By Ellen McDaniel-Weissler
For many years, a 1540 portrait miniature titled Portrait of a Lady, Perhaps Katherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger (above) has been thought to depict the beautiful Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife. But art historian Franny Moyle claims that the watercolor is not that of Katherine but of Anne of Cleves, Henry’s purportedly less attractive fourth wife.
The Search for Henry's Fourth Wife
After the death of his third queen Jane Seymour, Henry was looking for another wife. King Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent excommunication had made him a pariah in the Roman Catholic church, and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, believed Henry needed a supportive alliance with a Protestant power, such as the Duchy of Cleves. Anne of Cleves and her sister Amelie were put forward as potential partners for the grieving Henry.
But appearances mattered to Henry. With no way to determine how the Cleves sisters looked, the king sent his court painter Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543), to the Duchy, in what is today the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to paint the sisters’ likenesses.
(Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anne now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.)
Henry's ambassador Christopher Mont also assured Henry that Anne was a true beauty:
“Everyman praiseth the beauty of the said Lady [Anne], as well for the face, as for the whole body, above all other ladies excellent. She excelleth as far as the Duchess [of Milan, Henry’s preferred next wife], as the golden sun excelleth the silvern moon.”
Based on these portraits and the assurances of his ambassadors, Henry chose Anne as his next wife.
The Misadventure of the First Meeting
After a long and arduous trip from Germany, the 25-year-old Anne of Cleves arrived in England at the end of 1539 to wed the now obese and much older 48-year-old English monarch.
Their first meeting was not promising. Henry impulsively decided to journey unannounced to Rochester, where his betrothed was resting before resuming her journey to London. In one of his legendary masquerades, Henry presented himself as a messenger from the king, not as his true royal self.
Anne, seeing no reason to pay particular attention to a courier, and being distracted by a bull-baiting event outside her window, failed to see through his disguise and display the proper surprised rapture. Henry, humiliated, walked into another room, changed into his kingly purple robes, and then reappeared, to the dismay and embarrassment of Anne, who did her best to rectify first impressions.
But the damage was done.
Eye witnesses to the occasion claimed later that Henry was not only offended by Anne’s cavalier reaction, but that he was also repulsed by her appearance. Just before the wedding, Henry said ominously to Cromwell, “My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my Realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.”
Nevertheless, Anne was married to the unhappy King Henry on January 6, 1540. After the wedding night, Henry reportedly informed his personal physician, Dr. William Butts: “She is nothing fair and have very evil smells about her,” adding that he “plainly mistrusted her to be no maid by reason of the looseness of her belly and breasts and other tokens.”
The king concluded, “I have left her as good a maid as I found her.”
In other words, he never could bring himself to consummate the marriage, thus opening the door for an annulment.
Henry and Anne parted company amicably the following summer. Barely three weeks later, Henry married wife number five, Katherine Howard.
Of Henry’s six wives, Anne of Cleves probably came out of her association with the king the best. Henry was so relieved at her compliant acquiescence to their divorce that he offered to send her back to Cleves, all expenses paid. But Anne chose instead to remain in her adopted country. She retired from court with a pension, several manor houses, precedence over all other ladies but Henry’s next queen and his daughters, and the designation of “The King’s Good Sister.” She contentedly outlived him by a decade.
But Anne’s reputation was forever tarnished. Despite her popularity with the citizens and court of England, Henry’s unfair descriptions of Anne endured. She has since gone down in history as a pock-marked, large-nosed, loose-skinned, and odorous woman.
Which Wife Was It?
Miniaturists of the time often mounted their paintings on playing cards, which added stability to fragile painting surfaces for likenesses that were made to be carried in one’s pocket, purse, or in a locket. Holbein was known to choose such cards for their symbolism.
For example, according to Moyle, Holbein mounted a miniature he painted of Henry VIII’s principal advisor, Thomas Cromwell, on the back of the ace of spades. Erasmus, the world-renowned Dutch philosopher and theologian, had coined the phrase “calling a spade a spade”. So this phrase would have been familiar to both Holbein and Cromwell. (Holbein had painted several portraits of Erasmus and Cromwell and was thoroughly versed in the writings of the former, some of which influenced him to become a religious reformist.)
Holbein made a similar reference with his portrait of Thomas, Lord Audley of Walden’s new wife, Elizabeth Audley, by mounting it on the ace of hearts.
Holbein’s miniature, which was usually identified as the beautiful Katherine Howard, is mounted on a four of diamonds, a coded reference, according to Moyle, to the sitter being Henry’s fourth wife. But that would have been Anne of Cleves, not Katherine Howard.
Not only that, but according to Moyle, there is a distinct similarity between Holbein’s 1539 painting of Anne and the watercolor miniature, even though the woman in the miniature is wearing an English gown while the original oil portrait shows Anne in German-style clothing.
An Ugly Duckling No Longer?
Henry didn’t like the German style of clothing. In fact, one person close to the king is supposed to have said, “He was not pleased with her in that German dress.” Is it possible that to present herself as more appealing, Anne commissioned Holbein to paint her likeness again, this time in English dress?
And is it also possible that Anne was not the ugly duckling described by Henry the day after his wedding night, but a true beauty in her own right?
The original 1539 Holbein portrait of Anne shows her to have been one of the most attractive of Henry’s six wives and other portraits of Anne, like the one shown here, also depict her as a lovely young woman… at least by modern standards.
Moreover, eyewitness descriptions of Anne before she set off on her journey to England are, for the most part, favorable.
So it is certainly possible that Anne is the lovely woman portrayed in the the miniature, as Moyle asserts, and not Katherine. Perhaps the negative descriptions about Anne's appearance that have come down to us are just echoes of the empty insults hurled at this poor, young woman by an aging, narcissistic English king.